Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Movie Review: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre *** ½
Directed by: Cary Fukunaga.
Written by: Moira Buffini based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë.
Starring: Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre), Michael Fassbender (Rochester), Jamie Bell (St. John Rivers), Judi Dench (Mrs. Fairfax), Su Elliot (Hannah), Holliday Grainger (Diana Rivers), Tamzin Merchant (Mary Rivers), Amelia Clarkson (Young Jane), Craig Roberts (John Reed), Sally Hawkins (Mrs. Reed), Imogen Poots (Blanche Ingram).

According to the IMDB, there have been 22 adaptations of Jane Eyre over the years – six from the silent era, 10 made for TV and a Bollywood version among them. And that does not even include the classic horror film I Walked with a Zombie, which took the basic outline of the story for its model. I haven’t seen all of these versions, but I have seen two of the previous official incarnations – Robert Stevenson’s 1943 version with Joan Fontaine and Jane and Orson Welles as Rochester, and the 1996 version with Charlotte Gainsbourgh as Jane and William Hurt as Rochester. Although those are both fine films, there always seemed to be something lacking that marred the films in some ways. I think the problem with both versions is that neither of the Jane’s seemed young, innocent or naïve enough to fill the role properly. Fontaine was barely younger than Welles at all when they made the film – putting them on equal ground – and although there is a significant age difference between Gainsbourgh and Hurt, Gainsbourgh it seems to me has always seemed older than she actually is (and since she was 25 when she made the film, she was still too old to play Jane). That Gainsbourgh and Hurt lacked any real sexual connection hurt the film even more.

All of this leads to the most recent adaptation of Jane Eyre, by filmmaker Cary Fukunaga, who at first seems like an odd choice to direct the film. His only previous film was the Spanish language Sin Nombre, about two young, teenagers trying to cross the border from Mexico into America for very different reasons. That film was a great debut, and in Jane Eyre he proves it was no fluke. What the films share, I think, is an attention to detail, attention to the small character traits that make his characters feel human. You believe the connection between the teenagers in Sin Nombre, even though they are so different, and you feel the connection here between Rochester and Jane – and that makes the oft told tale feel vital and alive in a way the previous adaptations did not.

Fukunaga owes a debt to his actors, who play the roles pretty much perfectly. Mia Wasikowska (seen last year in The Kids Are All Right and Alice in Wonderland), gives her best performance yet as Jane. Her Jane is younger, more naïve than previous versions. She is also more touchingly fragile and human. Michael Fassbender, that great actor who has delivered magnificent but wholly different performances in films like Hunger, Inglorious Basterds and Fish Tank, has the right mix of cruelty and animal magnetism as Rochester. He is a secretive man, who keeps everyone at a distance, and his secrets locked away. Their romance is one where they both fight to resist their urges – to deny themselves what they really desire, but cannot act on. Because almost all of the sexual tension is never spoken of directly, these roles require actors to have a deeper connection that the audience can feel, even in scenes where it appears like the leads are talking about something entirely different. Wasikowska and Fassbender have that connection in this movie. The two leads are aided greatly by Judi Dench, who seems to be in every British costume drama but is great in nearly all of them, as Rochester’s maid Mrs. Fairfax. She observes everything, knows everything, but says little of consequence, like all good maids in stories like this. She speaks more in code than anything else, and feels for young Jane as she sees her get sucked in by Rochester, but admires him too much to say anything. Then there is Jamie Bell as poor Rivers, who will never understand what passion is.

Casting in a movie like Jane Eyre is really only half the battle. The other half is all about mood and atmosphere, and Fukunaga gets that just about perfect as well. From the opening scene of Jane running across the foggy moors, to the flashback of her childhood, raised in a mansion by her cruel aunt, before being sent to a crueler orphanage, and then finally to Rochester’s spacious estate Thornhill, Jane Eyre is a triumph of art direction and costume design – and perhaps even more of cinematography. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman makes this Jane Eyre dark, ominous and perhaps even spooky at times, which serves the movie well. The melancholy score by Dario Marianelli helps the atmosphere tremendously as well.

Watching Jane Eyre, I was surprised by how involved I became in it, even though I knew the story well. Perhaps that’s because the story’s big, third act reveal doesn’t really matter very much at all – what matters is that Rochester has something holding him back, not really what that something is. But freed from trying to figure out what was going to happen, I was able to concentrate on the nuances of the film, and that is what this film gets so right. Jane Eyre is one of the early highlights of the year.

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